By John Kennedy
Munster’s dream of honouring their former coach Anthony Foley, who died suddenly on the eve of a pool game in Paris earlier this season, with a third European Cup title lives on after a four-try victory over Toulouse.
The prize for their quarter-final triumph is a trip to France for their 12th semi-final, where they will take on either either the reigning champions Saracens or their Guinness Pro12 rivals Glasgow Warriors, who beat them in the Pro12 final in 2015.
With Leinster comfortably beating Wasps earlier to take their place in the last four it opens up the possibility of an all-Irish final at Murrayfield on 13 May for only the second time in the tournament’s 22-year history.
It was billed as a contest of two genuine Eurpean heavyweights, two teams with six European Cup titles between them, both playing a record 157th game in the tournament. But the truth is that Toulouse are a fallen giant these days, a team struggling to keep pace with the big-spending clubs in the Top 14 and languishing in 10th place in their domestic league.
Their fall from grace since Guy Novès finally stepped up to the French coaching role two years ago has been alarming and there is every prospect of them not finishing in the top six for the first time in 40 years. That would mean no automatic place in the Champions Cup next season for the first time.
Luke McAlister, the former All Black on the French club’s bench, hinted earlier in the week that his side were travelling more in hope than expectation – they have only won three games away from home in the Top 14 and just one in Europe – and they could not have got off to a worse start at a packed Thomond Park, the venue at which they were beaten 47-23 at the same stage in 2014.
The last thing you want to do in Limerick is get the crowd into the game early on, or give Munster the chance to take an early score. So Francois Cros can expect a tough time in the match review for needlessly charging into Duncan Williams with his elbow well after the ball had gone.
The game was not even two minutes old and, by the time the 23-year-old returned from the sin-bin, his side were 10 points adrift. It was not quite game over, but it gave the home side, still riding on the emotional wave of the passing of Anthony Foley, a real grip on the game.
Two close-range line-outs finally opened up a gap for prop John Ryan to drive through for a try at the posts and Tyler Bleyendaal added the conversion. The Kiwi outside-half then punished experienced Italian hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini for pulling down a maul to make it 10 points in as many minutes.
After that, though, Toulouse settled down and used their huge pack to make vital inches. Jean-Marc Doussain kicked three penalties, interspersed with a second from Bleyendaal, and the gap at half-time was probably better than the French club expected at a mere four points, especially as it took six camera views from the television match official to deny a try for Bleyendaal after a knock-on was spotted by Tommy O’Donnell.
With the swirling wind behind them in the second half, Munster wasted no time in building up a bigger cushion. Bleyendaal thumped over a penalty from the half-way line and then their ‘go-to’ man CJ Stander converted a neat peel from a five-metre line-out into typical close-range try.
Bleyendaal missed the conversion, but he stroked over a simple penalty in front of the posts to make it 11 points in 13 minutes at the start of the second half to extend the lead to 15 points. Toulouse needed some help to get back into the fight and it came from an unlikely source – Irish-born referee JP Doyle.
A touchline break by Paul Perez and Yoann Maestri was finished by Perez in the left corner, but there were 26,000 voices at Thomond Park calling for a forward pass. The televsion replays seemed to confirm their suspicions, but Mr Doyle went with his on-field call claiming that none of the TV angles were conclusive enough.
To make the decision all the more wounding, Doussain landed a magnificent touchline conversion to cut the gap to eight points and keep the door slightly ajar. It was shut firmly in Toulouse’s faces when the replacement wing Arthur Bonneval failed to release in a tackle 30 metres out from his posts and Bleyendaal made no mistake with the kick six minutes from time to open up an 11 point gap. then Darren Sweetnam hacked on a dropped ball and won the race for the try. The conversion completed the job and Andew Conway’s fourth try from the last move of the match added a cherry on top of the cake.
Scoring 5-0 Ryan try; 7-0 Bleyendaal con; 10-0 Bleyendaal pen; 10-3 Doussain pen; 13-3 Bleyendaal pen; 13-6 Doussain pen; 13-9 Doussain pen; 16-9 Bleyendaal pen; 21-9 Stander try; 24-9 Bleyendaal pen; 24-14 Perez try; 24-16 Doussain con; 27-16 Bleyendaal pen; 32-16 Sweetnam try; 34-16 Bleyendaal con; 39-16 Conway try, 41-16 Bleyendaal con.
Munster S Zebo; D Sweetnam, J Taute (F Saili 77), R Scannell, K Earls (A Conway 55); T Bleyendaal, D Williams (A Lloyd 77); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 58), N Scannell (R Marshall 58), J Ryan (S Archer 77), D Ryan, B Holland, P O’Mahony (captain, D O’Callaghan 50), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander (J O’Donoghue 66) .
Toulouse M Médard; Y Huget (A Bonneval 68), F Fritz (L McAlister 68), G Fickou, P Perez; J-M Doussain, S Bézy; C Baille (G Steenkamp 58), L Ghiraldini (J Marchand 49), C Johnston (D Aldegheri 49), J Tekori (P Faasalele 68), Y Maestri, T Dusautoir (captain, T Gray 5-14), Y Camara, F Cros (T Gray 75) .
Referee JP Doyle (England).